Downtown Momentum

Posted Jan. 29, 2010, at 7:55 p.m.

Petula Clark’s 1965 hit song “Downtown” didn’t need to persuade people that the best place to find energy and activity was downtown. They already knew where to find the bright lights, movie shows and music.

But for the generation that never knew a time before malls, “downtown” has not been a destination. Which makes it that much more remarkable that those in their 20s and early 30s have discovered — and reinvented — downtown Bangor. Emily Burnham’s recent stories on the downtown’s renaissance reveal several lessons, including the entrepreneurial spark that many of that age group have, and how fanning that spark into a flame can pay off for the larger community.

The stories also reveal the sort of public policies that set the stage for downtown revitalization. Those policies, despite their proven success, will always be a hard sell. They mean investing public funds in private property. They mean supporting culture and nonprofits. They mean taking risks on public events.

In Bangor, the city purchased two large historic buildings that had been vacant for years, and city officials also worked to support a children’s museum and an art museum. The city’s purchase of private property was a gamble, especially politically.

Joe Riley, the longtime mayor of Charleston, S.C., spoke in Maine several years ago and described how his city jumped at every opportunity to buy decrepit houses, commercial buildings and land. Sometimes, Mr. Riley joked, the city would almost invent the historical significance of a property it was purchasing to justify the expenditure. But there was little risk involved, he said, because again and again the city was able to renovate and sell houses to middle class families, tear down decrepit buildings to create parks, or rehab commercial structures as business incubator space.

Clearly, downtown Bangor is on the upswing. The challenge for city leaders — in both the public and private sectors — is to maintain the momentum. A clear sense of what success means is also critical.

Downtowns can become victims of their own successes; when commercial and residential rents rise, the craft shops, dance clubs, ethnic food restaurants and pubs are replaced with high-end galleries, boutiques and national chain businesses that can afford to take a small profit in one location, squeezing out homegrown competitors. And maintaining the availability of inexpensive residential housing is also key, providing a built-in critical mass of population that is supplemented by those who work nearby.

Providing adequate parking, good sidewalks, bicycle paths and green spaces is also essential, yet difficult to sell to taxpayers in hard times.

Bangor’s success can be held up as the counterargument. To keep downtown growing, business owners and residents must continue to tell city councilors and others what is at stake, and sing the praises of downtown.

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